Imaginary biologists

Dragon, Miskin Manor Hotel © C A Lovegrove

Dewi the Dragon by Christie Davies.
Y Lolfa, 2006.

“Ah, yes, the invention of the bus-eating dragon,” said Professor Russell unperturbed. “You see, in nature, imaginary animals spring into existence spontaneously, but only when a number of people think about them intensely at the same time. That is why there are dragons in Wales and China but not in Chad or Tasmania.”


Touted as “a book for children and adults of all ages, who enjoy a good laugh, a good adventure story and the imaginary real,” Dewi the Dragon is a slim volume of four related stories featuring young Mair Jenkins from Pentrediwaith¹ near Swansea, a Professor of Imaginary Biology called Bill Russell, Dr Mabel Wong who runs a sanctuary in Cardiff for imaginary animals, and of course the said imaginary animal.

Yet much as I enjoyed this reread of a book gifted to me in 2006 for its broad approachability, its humour, its storytelling and its fantasy, it was nevertheless tinged for me with sadness: one of the characters on whom it was based – the one who’d presented me with this copy – unfortunately died suddenly, just a matter of a few weeks after I’d received it.

But it’s with a degree of pleasure that revisiting this work of fiction has brought back to mind the ebullient nature of a former correspondent, reminding me of his stupendous erudition, sparkling wit and magpie nature even as I follow the adventures of Mair and her pet dragon.

Chinese dragons, Bristol Museum © C A Lovegrove

In ‘Dewi the Dragon Finds a Wife’ we learn of when Mair finds Dewi inexplicably listless in her parents’ house; she takes him to the vet’s in Swansea where he’s diagnosed as pining for a mate. She’s advised then to consult the world authority on dragons, Professor W M S Russell, who lives in one of the cooling towers of a former power station. The professor brings in Dr Mabel Wong from Singapore who introduces the red-scaled Dewi to Mei Kamlung, a magnificent golden dragon from China … and the rest is biology.

‘Dragons and Monsters’ takes us to an isolated bit near the coast of South Wales with the two dragons and their offspring, Mair, the professor, Mabel and her husband Llewelyn and her sister Audrey, plus Dr Friedrich Haber, whose speciality is dangerous imaginary archaeology. ‘The Strange Dragon that Swallowed a Bus’ introduces us to the eccentric Chief Inspector Moss and the inventive Eumenides Trelawney, and whisks us to the Gower peninsula in pursuit of said dragon; and this leads us into the final episode, entitled ‘Dewi the Dragon Fights St George’.

Now let me tell you a bit about the author, the late Christie Davies, an emeritus professor in the University of Reading’s sociology department. His areas of expertise included criminology, the sociology of morality, censorship and – significantly – humour, and he and his friend and former colleague, Bill Russell, used to play a game:

“I would fasten a set of postcards in a sequence on my office door and Bill, who was a veteran performer on Round Britain Quiz, would have to guess what the sequence meant. He invariably won.’

Reading Post, 15.2.2006

Such fun and games as played by the two academics are very evident in this short collection of stories, which happens to give a particularly accurate pen portrait of William Moy Stratton Russell, a regular correspondent of mine and honorary president of the Pendragon Society (for which I edited the journal). Bill Russell was a true polymath whose academic career ranged from the classics to zoology, from psychology to ethology and of course on to sociology; in addition he was a past president of the Folklore Society, penned a science fiction novel, and wrote papers on a wide variety of subjects.

He was also a true eccentric, eschewing computers and word processors for his trusty typewriter, on which he’d bash out letters, notes, papers and lengthy articles littered with corrected typos, crossings-out and arrows. His last letter, enclosed with a copy of this book (inscribed to me “with best wishes from the Professor of Imaginary Zoology”), in part read:

“I think the stories are delightful, but the joke is that [Christie] has immortalised me in literature by making me a main character under my own name!

[…] Sorry for the mess. I’m groggy from a week in the Royal Berks[shire Hospital] having blood from a reenlarged prostate washed out of my bladder with a catheter!”

Letter 7.4.2006

Sadly this was to be the last missive from him: he died at the end of July from medical complications. With his colleague Rex Leonard Burch he’d previously introduced, in 1959, the concept of the Three Rs (replacement, reduction and refinement) in the humane testing of animals; and in all my long-distance dealings with him humanity was one of the qualities I most prized in him. This title reflects the man as I knew him, and doubtless expresses the personality of his colleague too and the warmth of their friendship.

But, this is a book review, so I shall end by saying this is a witty, clever fiction, full of word games, sly humour about the Welsh and English, and gentle in its fictive pen portraits of the author’s university colleagues. It’s truly a book for readers of all ages.

#ReadIndies 2023

Read for Karen and Lizzy’s #ReadIndies and in anticipation of Paula’s #Dewithon23. Y Lolfa (the name means sitting-room or lounge, a place to loll or sit in for a chat or to joke, ‘lolian’) is an indie publisher in Talybont, Ceredigion. It published a satirical magazine called Lol, from the Welsh for ‘nonsense’, and now produces a range of books in both Welsh and English. It’s a pleasing coincidence that text and internet slang ‘lol’ – laughing out loud – has a similar connotation to Welsh ‘lol’.

¹ ‘Pentrediwaith’ is one of Davies’s in-jokes. Its literal meaning is ‘village of the unemployed’, a pseudonym borrowed from a classic socio-economic study by Ronald Frankenberg of the Clwyd village of Glynceiriog.
• R J Frankenberg, (1957). Village on the Border: a Social Study of Religion, Politics and Football in a North Wales Community. Cohen & West.

12 thoughts on “Imaginary biologists

    1. It certainly is, Jeanne. 🙂 There’s a TV parlour game broadcast in the UK called Only Connect where opposing teams have work out how four words, phrases, symbols, pictures, figures or whatever relate to each other – clearly the postcard game was a precursor!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Well this is just a lovely post from beginning to end, full of friendship and games but the part that made me smile the most was the letter with all the corrected typos and arrows; this reminds me so much of my father in law, a quietly eccentric academic person himself!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good for your father-in-law, Jane! Bill used to send me half a dozen or more typed pages with the usual typos and arrows, impossible to scan so I had to decipher everything before word processing the lot!

      Liked by 1 person

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